November 08, 2006

What is Time?


You know something is going on.
It is taking place just beyond the range
of your hearing, inside that house
on the corner needing paint and shutters,
the one with the cluttered yard
you always suspected sheltered friends
in name only. It may be in the cellar
where the radio transmitter is being built
or the satellite. A cabal of intelligence
agents is involved, CIA, MI-6, Mossad.
It is obvious plans are being made;
didn’t your boss arch his eyebrows
while passing your desk this morning,
grunt hello, rather than his usual
“Howerya?” Veiled threats are made
to your life and livelihood. Someone
is always watching you watching
and waiting for whatever is going
to happen to happen.


I am reading Dr Ronald L Mallett's fascinating memoir called TIME TRAVELER and it occured to me to discuss for myself the same question so many have asked, before finding out their various answers. Hence this little essay.


Since none other than St Augustine asked this question in his CONFESSIONS and came to the conclusion that while he knew perfectly well what time was he faced a certain bedevilment in trying to explain it in words, I don't see why I shouldn't attempt to answer the question myself. Not so much because I believe myself to be the equal or superior to that august personage (hardly!) or others of his ilk, so much as because the question as put is so simple on its face that anyone might essay to respond without putting on airs.

Time. Time is most often thought of as flowing, linearly, from one point through another to another, unidirectionally and irreversibly, from past to present and thence to the future as it becomes the present. But what if this is short-sighted and wrong? My theory is that time is more like a boundless ocean, a volume with neither surface nor bottom, and therefore no true center (leave aside the concept of space-time for the moment and think only of the entity of time). Time is all around us; like a hydraulic fluid, if you act on one part of the present, the entire present responds. Time, for me, doesn't flow, no, we are immersed in it, we move through time. Now, where we start may be anywhere, and where we "go" may be anywhere; the only rule, the only Law, is that we cannot return the way we came. If we go from A to B to C, we cannot return through C to B to A. (More about returning to A later). In that sense our movement through time is in fact unidirectional. I believe this is because we ourselves define the present moment, in and of ourselves. We carry that moment with us, and by defining the present, we also define the past and the future, which are really only variations on the present. But to get from point A in time to point B in time, how and why does that occur? I think it happens due to a kind of time-gravity. The state of B -- all B's of which there are an almost infinite number of possibilities-- has a lower potential "energy" than A and therefore time-gravity tends to pull us from Time A to Time B, a kind of warping of the fabric of the "ocean of time" that permits and encourages time to pass into the B state. Free will and serendipity determine which particular B state will be fulfilled, but A to B happens automatically. B is the "future" of A, i.e. where time-gravity leads/attracts/pulls so that like an electrical potential difference, the present has to drop into a certain future by virtue of its being "lower"; hence the "higher" previous state A becomes the past and the movement through the ocean of time is from "higher" or past to "lower" or future-present (though this is always a figurative "high/low" and cannot be visualized as such).

Again, we move through time, moving from the present into the future, changing the present into the past and the future into the present and constantly doing so endlessly and without stopping. Thus there is no present moment, no present "place" only where we are, i.e. we are the present but no time is the present because we keep moving past it. So we embody the present but cannot locate any present in time itself. WE define the present in ourselves and experience it every nanosecond, yet to point to it is to lose it, just as in quantum mechanics to note an electron's position is impossible because you can't know its position and its momentum at the same time, and the only way to localize it is to know both. Hence, you could say that present time has a kind of quantum probability, undefinable, unpinpointable, yet as real and knowable as an electron so long as you don't try to stop or define a single instant or quanta of it.

The present, too, is ALL there is, in fact. The future is merely present time we haven't yet moved into, and the past is present time that we've left behind. Now is the present a kind of line, or area or volume? I've said that time is like an ocean, so it must be a volume, 3D as it were, because time is all around us. So we can travel in ALL directions from A. No direction is forbidden because all directions embody a move into a different energy potential, a lower state, a B state by definition. The ONLY time law is that you cannot move from B back to A via that same route. Now not all B states are possible. For instance if A is a broken egg, the B state that has it coming back together spontaneously must be at a HIGHER potential and therefore time-gravity would not lead us there and it would not be a possible future for that A.

Now then, why can't you move from C through B back to A? Well, you can't move through lower to higher potentials, for one thing, but theoretically, since TIME IS ALL AROUND US< it should be possible for us to get from, say, Z back to A somehow. Especially since we were in fact once there, at A, and if we were once at A, why can't we be there again?

Why not? Perhaps traveling from A to B alters the path irrevocably so that there is no path or no way to get back, like the birds eating Handsel and Gretl's breadcrumbs on the way to the witch's house...They simply lost their way. Or morphologically the moving from A to B has transformed the path in such a way as to prevent any backwards travel. BUT could one do a run-around? Could one go on from A to B to C all the way to Z and somehow get back to A' the precursor to A. Depending on what Z is and how you get there, Z would have to be both after C and before A' or somehow connecting to pre-A or A'. I dunno how that might go or work but in an ocean of time, an ocean of present and future presents it might be possible....Could a past become a future present again, though? Could B, now past, become the future to a new A again? Or would that throw everything off balance and implode the whole ocean? And yet, if B could in fact be a future again, ALL of time could repeat and the endless Cycle of time would be real...either with the same things happening over and over endlessly OR, given free will and the possibilities of randomness and mutation, the Cycle could be different each time. Note that each cycle's recycling would depend on someone newly discovering how to go from Z to pre-A or A' all over again...Or else time would not repeat until that discovery is made.

In this view of time, what is birth and death? We are what defines the present, we bear the present along with us as we move along in time, leaving past present behind as we step into future presents. When we are born, the present moment is defined as beginning. When we die, we must lose track of a present defined moment and are no longer in time because time demands awareness. In death you are no longer aware of the ocean; you are out of the boundaries of time and by definition, since time and space are one, you are no longer in space either. ARE you no longer at all? Where, what were you before conception? By definition you were possibility, you were potential, by virtue of being born in the future. The fact that you will be born, means that you are potentially born before then. Perhaps after death your energy, never lost, goes back to being potential energy again, just like a ball balanced on the edge of a table. Potential to be a defined present, but not one yet. Potential to be born again. By definition a soul waiting for rebirth...

And so, the Cycle of Time and Reincarnation...and my theory of time led to all that? Hmmm, you'd almost think I was a believer. But it is appealing. Enough for now. BD

Posted by pamwagg at November 8, 2006 03:29 PM


Hi Cynthia,

The whole point of the exercise was for me to discover what I think, not to elucidate Time for all people...I suggest that you sit down with a piece of paper and a pen or pencil and start writing (the brain-to-hand connection rather than a computer being, I think, crucial as a way of bringing forth important information buried deep in the mind). You might be surprised at what you arrive at if you let this connectivity guide you. That is, if the question is important to you. I do this all the time in order to discover what I think about various subjects that on the surface stump me when I try to consciously figure them out. Often when I simply let go and let the pen move according to what my brain tells me it wants to say, I discover what it is I truly think. This, by the way, is often the process by which I catch a poem!


Pam BD

Posted by: me at November 9, 2006 10:04 AM

Pam, I once encountered a poem in which the author, besotted by love, explained how time looped endlessly for the beloved:

"Beloved, you have never once noticed the miracle
the way time swings on the shimmering cord of your spirit,
back and forth--
you have neither marveled nor opened your eyes.

Neverthless, in the deep tunnel which lies beneath your heart,
beneath the steep purposeful stairs of your consciousness,
all potentiality manifests and unmanifests.
All blackness blazes and is extinguished,
blazes and is extinguished
lit and re-lit by the long translucent fingers of the Divine.

This is the alley where the drunk lies down,
where they find him in the morning, stiff and blue--
this is the shaft of light in which his mother stands,
crooning over his small cradle, daft with love."

Well, it continues, the basic thrust being that in the beloved there is neither beginning nor ending, including of course the ending which is death: "Here the dead arise, full-fleshed and shaking back their hair. . ."

There is nothing like love to put a mystical slant on things, I suppose. As for me I am just as puzzled by the concept of time/no time as ever, and none the less so after (after!--there we go again!) reading your fascinating post--not, you understand, due to any deficiency in its logic or presentation, but only owing to my own density. Thank you, nevertheless, for trying.

Posted by: Cynthia at November 8, 2006 09:36 PM

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